Slaves, Sailors, Citizens
African Americans in the Union Navy
Steven J. Ramold
"Fascinating.... No previous historian has explored this topic so thoroughly or so persuasively."—TLS
"This highly readable book offers important insights into an understudied aspect of the African American experience.... Ramold should be congratulated."
—Military History of the West
"An excellent record. A first-rate book ... greatly contributes to American, African American, and American military historiographies."—The Historian
As many as one in six Union navy sailors was African American, many of them former slaves. This richly detailed history shows that the free blacks and "contraband" slaves who joined the U.S. Navy during the Civil War were essential to Northern victories at sea. Through their role in preserving the Union, they helped to win recognition for African Americans as full citizens.
African Americans joined the U.S. Navy from the first days of the war and soon demonstrated to a skeptical Northern population that they would fight for their freedom. Faced with the hazards of battle, African American sailors performed with great heroism, and several earned the nation's highest military tribute, the Medal of Honor. Their service in the navy paved the way for their wider employment in the U.S. Army.
Despite the lack of official records on the subject, Ramold has combed through mountains of memoirs, court documents, pension reports, and other sources to discover the true magnitude of African Americans' contribution to the naval effort. The book presents a vivid description of the lives of these sailors from enlistment to discharge, telling the story as much as possible in the words of the sailors themselves. A dozen rare photographs illustrate the range of African American service.
Ramold demonstrates that the navy, from necessity and from tradition, treated African Americans in its ranks far more equitably than did the army or any other public institution in antebellum America. Decades later, black sailors would be consigned to work in the mess hall, but in the Civil War era they fought side by side with white sailors, were treated equally in courts-martial, and received the same pay and benefits. Slaves, Sailors, Citizens allows us to rediscover these largely forgotten heroes, whose story can now take its rightful place in the history of the war and in the struggle of slaves and free blacks to become citizens.
(2001) 262 pp., illus.
Steven J. Ramold is Assistant Professor of American History at Virginia State University.
Table of Contents
1. "America Has Such Tars": African American Sailors before the Civil War
2. "The Wants of the Service": The Politics of African American Enlistment
3. A Unique Set of Men: The Demographics of African American Sailors
4. "Sick of the Sea": Everyday Life in the Union Navy
5. "Energetically and Bravely—None More So": African American Sailors in Combat
6. Before the Bench: African American Sailors in the Navy Criminal Justice System
7. One Who Was There: Charles B. Fisher, United States Navy
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